The Air Max 1 was a pioneer in its space and laid the foundation for one of the most successful lines in Nike’s portfolio – the Air Max line. It is without a doubt the sneaker most pivotal to Nike’s success. The silhouette revolutionised running shoes and footwear design and still has a cult following 35 years after its inception. Even though its history has been well documented over the years, a quick look at the past can help shed light on the Air Max 1’s significance and how the former runner became the lifestyle staple that it is today.
The man behind the design
To fully understand the story, it requires a brief introduction of the legendary footwear designer, Tinker Hatfield. A University of Oregon architecture graduate, Tinker joined the in-state sportswear company Nike in 1981 to pursue a career designing offices, apparel showrooms and retail outlets. Four years later, he transitioned from drawing up showroom interiors to footwear design and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact.
In the early 1980s, Nike rose to prominence and out-paced competing sports brands. It became the fastest growing footwear brand in America by establishing partnerships with various athletes and releasing iconic sneakers like the Nike Cortez and Nike Tailwind. Midway through the decade however, footwear sales started to plateau with increased competition and a major shift in consumer expectations during that experimental phase. Viewing this as an opportunity to take risks and innovate, Tinker began developing some ideas.
Nike Air Technology
Air technology wasn’t a newly discovered innovation, it was developed by Frank Rudy, a former NASA aerospace engineer who introduced it to Nike in 1977. The idea was to replace the traditional molded EVA soles in shoes with an air bag to soften impact. It was applied to the Nike Air Tailwind in 1978 and became very popular with athletes who loved the light bouncy cushioning. However, the consensus at the time was that Air cushioned soles were better left hidden – until Tinker Hatfield came along.
Little did he know that a visit to Paris would inspire the idea to expose the Air cushioned sole. It was a controversial building named Centre Georges Pompidou, considered by many to be an eyesore, that changed everything. “I don’t know if I was thinking, well now I’m going to design a shoe based off of this,” Hatfield said in the documentary series Respect the Architects, “I just remember being super influenced by it and having my architectural senses turned upside down.” Referring to the unconventional building design that took all the functional and structural elements and placed them on the outside for everyone to see. He claims that had he not seen the building, he may have never thought of exposing the Air cushioned midsole.
When Tinker started developing his idea, Nike was moving in a completely different direction with potential plans to shrink the Air technology. The sportswear brand thought it was a bad idea and feared that a visible Air unit would be structurally weak or easily punctured. Hatfield claims in one of his interviews, that it got to a point where many influential people at the company felt like he pushed it too far and they were not having it. Fortunately, he was backed by David Forland, Director of Cushioning Innovation, and the project was eventually given a greenlight. Even though he had complete confidence in the integrity of his design, he could have never predicted the impact that Air Max 1 would have on sneaker history and culture.
On March 26th, 1987, Nike released the Air Max 1 “Sport Red” and it featured in the brand’s first ever television advertisement that same year. It released as part of the Air Pack which also featured the Air Trainer 1, Air Sock, Air Revolution and Air Safari.
The rest is history as they say, the Air Max line became the gift that keeps on giving with a sneaker series still going strong 35 years later. Air Max 90, Air Max 180, Air Max 95, Air Max 97, Air Max Plus, Air Max 360, Air VaporMax, Air Max 270, Air Max 720 and Air Max 2090, among many others have all notably followed the original.
In 2002, Japanese boutique atmos was awarded the first-ever Air Max 1 collaboration which opened the floodgates for a new practice that would change sneaker marketing forever.
Inspired by Hatfield’s 1987 Air Safari, atmos borrowed the design’s earthy orange palette and transferred its iconic Safari print onto the Air Max 1’s mudguard. The legendary release coincided with the design’s 15th anniversary and paved the way for several collaborations that pushed the boundaries of sneaker design and further elevated the status of the Air Max 1 – such as the CLOT “Kiss of Death” (2006), atmos “Elephant” (2007) and Patta “Chlorophyll” (2009) to name a few.
Air Max Day
In 2014, Nike decided to properly celebrate the Air Max 1 and made it official by declaring March 26th of every upcoming year to be Air Max Day. As we approach the 35th anniversary and prepare our celebrations, we can’t help but appreciate the silhouette that spawned the vast Air Max catalog and gave us some of the most sought-after grails in sneaker culture.